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Diplomacy in Action

Malawi


International Religious Freedom Report 2002
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
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The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, there was some tension between the Muslim Association of Malawi and a Christian missionary group during the period covered by this report.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 45,745 square miles, and its population is estimated at 10,386,000. More than 70 percent of the population is Christian. Among the Christian denominations, the largest are the Roman Catholic and Presbyterian (Church of Central Africa Presbyterian--CCAP) Churches, with smaller numbers of Anglicans, Baptists, evangelicals, and Seventh-Day Adventists. There is a substantial Muslim minority totaling approximately 20 percent of the population. The vast majority of Muslims are Sunni Muslim, ascribing to either the Qadriya or Sukkutu groups. There also are Hindus, Baha'is, and followers of traditional indigenous religions. There are few atheists.

Foreign missionary groups are present in the country, including Protestant Christian, Catholic, Pentecostals, and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The Government at all levels strives to protect this right in full, and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors. There is no state religion.

There are no separate requirements for the recognition of religions, but religious groups must register with the Government. There were no reports that the Government refused to register any religious groups.

Foreign missionaries experienced occasional delays in renewing employment permits, despite the Government's revision of its policy and procedures on temporary employment permits in 1997; however, this appeared to be the result of bureaucratic inefficiency rather than a deliberate government policy against foreign missionaries. Missionaries and charitable workers pay lower fees for employment permits than do other professionals.

In May 2001, the Government released a formal response to a series of pastoral letters from the CCAP churches affirming the churches' right to comment on issues of public concern and invited religious leaders to Lilongwe, the capital, to discuss national issues (see Section III). The Government has continued to respect the rights of CCAP, and there has been no further action since the Government's response. While the pastoral letters created some political tension, there continued to be acceptance of the historical role played by religious organizations in social and political life. In March 2002, six bishops from the Catholic Church released a pastoral letter against a constitutional amendment to eliminate presidential term limits. The Government took no action against the Catholic Church after the release of the letter.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

In June 2002, a Catholic priest was arrested in Kasungu for possession of seditious material. The priest had documents opposing the constitutional amendment to eliminate presidential term limits that he was translating into the local language. On June 17, he was released on bail, and no court proceedings or further actions were initiated during the period covered by this report.

In January 2002, the Office of the Ombudsman directed the Ministry of Agriculture to pay benefits and salary arrears to a self-exiled member of the Jehovah's Witnesses who fled the country in 1977 for fear of religious persecution under the former regime of President Hastings Banda. The Ombudsman cited a July 1999 notice issued by the Office of the President and Cabinet that directs the Government to reimburse all persons who were dismissed from office on political grounds during the Banda era.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, there was some tension between the Muslim Association of Malawi (MAM) and a Christian missionary group during the period covered by this report. There is no societal discrimination against members of religious minorities.

Some opposition politicians and clerics have raised Islam as a political issue. Citing the President's adherence to Islam, his contact with Islamic countries such as Libya and Sudan, and the building of new mosques, some opposition politicians and clerics have accused the ruling party of attempting to "Islamicize" the country. An attempt by the Government in early 2000 to replace "Bible Knowledge" in the school curriculum with the more universal "Moral and Religious Education" course met with widespread criticism from Christian leaders. In February 2000, when the President suspended the introduction of the new curriculum and returned "Bible Knowledge" to the curriculum, Muslim leaders rebuked him. Consultations between government and religious leaders resulted in a compromise, and both courses were offered as optional subjects during the period covered by this report.

In February 2002, MAM filed a complaint letter with the Religious Affairs Coordinator for the Office of the President and Cabinet regarding the activities of a Christian missionary group in Mangochi District. MAM accused the missionary group of entering the mosques to convert Muslims to Christianity and disseminating inflammatory publications about Islam. The Religious Affairs Coordinator attempted to convene a forum on February 22, 2002, with MAM, the Malawi Council of Churches, and the leaders of the missionary group to discuss a peaceful resolution to the problem; however, the meeting was cancelled due to a lack of funding. In April 2002, the same missionary group contacted the Religious Affairs Coordinator, the Deputy Inspector General of Police, and the local Mangochi District Police to report that they had heard rumors that the Muslim community in Mangochi District planned to harm them; however, there were no reports that any violence occurred.

Unlike in the period covered by the previous report, there were no reports of clashes between Muslims and Christians.

In March 2002, six Catholic bishops released a pastoral letter protesting a constitutional amendment that would eliminate presidential term limits. The letter was read in Catholic churches nationwide on Easter Sunday. Although the letter ignited a heated political debate in the press, there was no reaction from the Government.

In March and April 2001, the CCAP churches released pastoral letters addressing social and political topics of current national interest. The Presbyterian letter in particular was direct and critical of the Government. While some progovernment newspapers attacked individual members of the clergy, the President publicly affirmed the churches' right to comment on issues of public concern (see Section II). In July 2001 at an Independence Day celebration, newspapers reported the Young Democrats, a group allegedly linked to the ruling United Democratic Front party, beat a Catholic priest as a result of the CCAP pastoral letter. The group had intended to target the CCAP pastor; however, because of a case of mistaken identity, the priest was beaten. No action was taken against those responsible for the beating during the period covered by this report.

There have been active efforts to foster cooperation between religious groups. For example, the Public Affairs Committee, which is involved prominently in promoting civic education and human rights, includes representatives of various churches and mosques. On June 9, 2002, the Malawi Council of Churches and other religious and civil society groups sponsored a National Day of Prayer in Blantyre to pray for solutions to problems that face the country, such as the constitutional amendment to eliminate term limits, HIV/AIDS, and poverty. The Government granted a permit to the organizers to hold the 2-hour long prayer session despite a ban on all demonstrations either for or against the constitutional amendment to eliminate term limits.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. Representatives of the Embassy have frequent contact with leaders and members of all religious communities in the country.

Following alleged threats against a Christian missionary group (see Section III), Embassy officials worked to ensure the safety of American citizen members of the group.



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